If Matthew Weiner‘s name wasn’t on Are You Here, you never would’ve guessed this movie came from the mind behind Mad Men. The focus, power, subtlety and charms of his AMC drama are nowhere to be found in his feature directorial debut. The staggering drop in quality is disappointing, but worse than that, even on its own terms, Are You Here is a notable misfire.
Are We Here is about two seemingly different friends, Steve (Owen Wilson) and Ben (Zach Galifianakis), and how the death of Ben’s father challenges and enriches their friendship and those around them. Ben — who is considered a failure by his family — inherits most of his father’s money, which he was left to clean up his act. This delights the selfish and greedy Steve, while disappointing Ben’s sister, Terri (Amy Poehler). She had plans for her father’s shop, land and money. Since Ben is slightly unstable, she tries to fight in court that he’s not responsible enough to handle more than two million dollars.
There’s more to this story, though: Steve is hovering around Ben to make sure he gets the land; Terri can’t have children; Steve is annoyed by a tree is blocking his view of a girl undressing across his apartment; and, perhaps the most sloppily handled portion of the film, Steve falls for Ben’s dad’s much younger wife, Angela (Laura Ramsey). There’s literally about five to ten minutes spent on that expendable tree subplot, by the way. It doesn’t tell us anything we don’t already know about Steve, it adds more fat to an already overlong 113 minute running time and the moral he takes away from it is so forced and obvious.
The majority of Are You Here is insincere, though. Not for a second is the relationship between Steve and Angela believable. There’s that trite romantic comedy moment where they’re on the phone, drift into a knowing silence, and start to feel something for each other. Besides being a painfully obvious moment, it’s unearned. The way Angela reacts to Steve in this scene and later on hardly registers to what’s been established about her and her thoughts on him. There’s another moment where after Steve drives drunk — which is where it’s difficult not to lose complete empathy for him — she hesitantly kisses him. All the erratic choices these characters make aren’t serving developments in their lives, it’s just sloppy writing. It totally goes against the spirit of the movie, as well. Are We Here is a movie about hanging onto what’s important, what’s in front of you, and distinguishing reality from fantasy. The thing is, very little in this movie feels real.
The cast can’t make it work, either. Wilson is fine. He can only do so much with a character this thin. Wilson is more than capable of finding empathy for seriously flawed figures, but since Steve’s journey is too long-winded and phony, Wilson can’t rise too much above the material. Galifianakis is miscast. He can handle drama, as proven by his overlooked performance in It’s Kind of a Funny Story, but much of the film’s humor is too reminiscent of his most popular work. Galifianakis playing a man child is pretty unimaginative casting. Since he hits familiar notes as Ben, he’s never able to disappear into the film. The only actor who overcomes Weiner’s script is Ramsey. She’s charming, although not enough to mask her problematic character.
What makes Are You Here tougher to swallow is that it treats its audience with disrespect. The “aha” moments, especially the final shot, hammer in everything Are You Here has already shown us and said very loudly. We know how these characters have changed by the end. We don’t need clumsy metaphors to highlight the men Ben and Steve have become. It only sheds more light on what an underwhelming and often frustrating experience Are You Here is.
The Upside: Laura Ramsey; two decent jokes; Wilson has his moments
The Downside: Dull; pandering; obnoxious score; the final shot
On The Side: Bradley Cooper and Jennifer Aniston were originally cast in lead roles.